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Agents and Editors and PR Companies, Oh My …

This week I continue my three-part series on Publishing Industry Basics. Last week I discussed Three Tiers Of Publishers (Big 5/6, Indie/Small Press, and Self Publishing). Before I talk about the basics of when and how to submit material to agents and editors, I thought it might be useful to understand the roles those individuals play in the publishing industry. I’m also going to discuss PR companies, which have a complementary, but different role for an author.

Please keep in mind these are general descriptions from my own experience and research in the publishing industry.


Agents play an integral role in the publishing industry. They are the primary means for an author to be published with a Big 5 (or 6!) publisher. (Click here to read my post on publisher basics). Many of the larger Independent Publishers also require agent submissions.

Self-publishing does not require an agent. In fact, agents do not typically work with self-published authors in the self-publishing process. Although they will assist a self-published author to move into traditional publishing with new, unpublished work.

Agents are the individuals who take on an author’s manuscript, recommend rewrites as necessary to help the author move forward with the most polished manuscript possible, and pitch those manuscripts directly to a publisher on behalf of the author. They also continue to work with the author on future projects and support ongoing publications through a variety of tasks such as tracking royalties, sub-rights sales, translations, and movie and tv deals.

Some common questions I hear about Agents.

Q: Can I hire an agent?

A: No. Agents typically use a submission process similar to publishing companies and only work with authors whose work fits the genre(s) they represent. The voice, style, and quality must also meet their individual requirements. Keep in mind that agents are pitched hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions every year and only take on a handful of clients. Agents are the biggest supporters of a manuscript, so they want to love the work they represent. I will discuss the query process in greater detail next week.

Q: How much does an author pay an agent?

A: Agents are paid a percentage of sales.  Industry standard is 10-15% domestic sales and 20% foreign. Authors should NEVER pay a reading fee or upfront costs to an agent for editing or submissions. This is a big red flag that the agent is not a legitimate agent.

Agents work harder for an author than anyone else in the industry.

Q: Why should I pay someone to do work I can do myself?

A: This is an important question. The simple answer is, the agent does work authors cannot do themselves. Authors can’t submit to a Big 5 publisher (and many small presses). Further, agents have relationships with editors within multiple publishing imprints for the genre they represent. They have insider knowledge of where an author’s style and voice will fit. Once a publisher offers a deal, agents also understand contracts and negotiations and will fight for the best deal for their authors. Authors who want to publish traditionally (both big and small presses) require an agent. The amount of sales an author can receive through an agented manuscript far exceeds any percentage the agent earns. Agents work harder for an author than anyone else in the industry.

Q: How do I find the right agent for me?

A: Research! There are several publications that list agents, such as Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents. These publications list agents, what genre(s) they represent, and how to query them. Always check an agent’s website for any updates in policy before you submit. Follow guidelines EXACTLY. Do not include any material that isn’t requested.

Another way to find agents is to attend writers conferences where agents are presenting, critiquing, and answering questions. This can also be an opportunity to meet an agent in person and have them request pages through a pitch. I’ll cover more of this next week when I discuss the query process.

Lastly, read the acknowledgement section or do an internet search on your favorite authors and find out who represents them. If your work is similar in genre/style to a published author, there is a strong chance that agent will be a good fit for you.

Final word on Literary Agents: Probably the most important relationship an author can build. This can be a lifelong partnership through multiple books and multiple publishers. Do not take this relationship lightly. Make sure it feels like a good fit for you, vet the agent by researching what authors they represent and where they have placed books, confirm they do not require any upfront fees. Trust your gut instincts, but do your research.


There are two basic types of editors: developmental and copy editors. There are two basic categories of editors: freelance and in-house with a publisher.

Developmental vs Copy Editors

Developmental editors address big picture issues in a manuscript. This might include story structure, pace, character development, and story arc. They typically read the entire manuscript and make notes inside the document on specific problems and often write up a separate document with notes. Their job is to find what does and doesn’t work in a manuscript. They might locate places where Point of View accidentally shifts (whose “eyes” we are seeing a story through). They might identify places where an author’s voice disappears or changes. They may also find clunky dialogue, missing information or scenes, contradictions of story or character, or places that don’t ring “true” based on the world and characters a writer creates. They might also suggest ways to strengthen a story by increasing the stakes or providing a twist or clarifying a section.

Copy editors go line by line proofreading for grammar, spelling, and inconsistencies (a character’s name changes etc.). The copy editor addresses ambiguities (who is “he” in this sentence) and generally prepares the final manuscript for publication. Their role is to verify the manuscript is free from errors.

These two jobs are typically done by separate individuals. The ability to do these jobs well are two different skill sets. They are both vital to the writing process. A developmental editor may point out proofreading errors and a copy editor may point out a big picture problem, but their value lies primarily in their specific tasks. Developmental editors get the manuscript to its strongest draft. Copy editors get the strongest draft to its most polished, error free final product ready to print.

Freelance vs. In-House

Freelance editors work with authors prior to submission to an agent or editor or before an author self-publishes. They work with both experienced and first-time authors. Many published authors still work with a freelance editor before they turn a new manuscript in to their agent as the first line of defense against a poorly written draft. Self-published authors would all benefit from a professional freelance editor. Two freelance editors I highly recommend are Andrea Karin Nelson of Allegory Editing and Erin Brown of Erin Edits. I have used the services of both and can vouch for their high quality and professional service.

Once an author’s work has been accepted by a publisher, the manuscript will go through an additional editing process. An in-house developmental editor will work with the author first, followed by a copy editor on the final product. This is standard procedure. If you are a first-time novelist, be prepared for another round of editing (or two … or twelve) with the publisher after acceptance. Writing is rewriting!

Final word on editors: Get one!

PR Companies

The last group I’d like to discuss is a PR or publicity person. Publicity is a term that often causes an author’s blood to turn cold. Writing is hard. Promoting one’s work is even harder! Most authors are not natural PR people. That’s where PR companies come in.

There are several companies and individuals on the market who can assist an author with book promotion. Depending on the contract, this person or group may help with setting up public appearances, social media connections and marketing, arranging tv, radio, and print media exposure, and working on book trailers or other advertising.

I can personally recommend JKS Communications. They are an amazing group that can help any published author, both traditional and self, increase their exposure, author platform, and sales. Authors are not required to have a PR company or publicity person separate from their publisher. Most publishers have publicity people working for them. But,  a publisher may not put a lot of time and attention toward a new or less established author, so hiring someone focused on your work can be a smart business move. Plus, it’s really great to have someone on your side. A PR group can make you feel like a rock star.

Final word on PR Companies: Smart business sense for an author building and maintaining a public platform.

Think of these three roles like this: The agent makes your book available to the best publisher, the editors make your book the best it can be, and the PR company gets you out in front of the maximum number of readers. They each support a different aspect of the business of writing and are invaluable as you navigate the complex and ever-changing world of publishing.

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.

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